Motown at 50: Funky Motown! part 1

 By  Dave Thompson
Motown founder Berry Gordy (left) and Marvin Gaye during the glory days of the record label. (Images from Kenneth/From
Motown founder Berry Gordy (left) and Marvin Gaye during the glory days of the record label. (Images from Kenneth/From “Divided Soul” by David Ritz)
Famously, Berry Gordy so disliked the term “funk” that when his Motown label came to release an album by a band whose very name contained the offending word, he personally instructed the group to change its name.

Equally famously, when two of the greatest jewels in the Motown crown demanded they be permitted to record music in keeping with their personal feelings, Gordy came close to losing both of them, so vehemently did he oppose their wishes.

Yet, as the 1960s ended and the 1970s began, the Motown studios in Detroit not only continued living up to their historic nickname of Hitsville, they did so with one finger so firmly on the pulse of the changing R&B marketplace that even the undisputed masters of the one musical form which Motown still failed to fully endorse — funk, of course — kept one eye firmly on the label’s output, knowing that even the omnipotent Gordy could not and, ultimately, would not, stand in the way of his artists’ progress. 

Marvin Gaye’s epochal What’s Going On album (1971), conceived around his serviceman brother Frankie’s experiences in and after Vietnam, but convened around a rat’s nest of social wrongs, may have been couched in the singer’s customary silken tones and arrangements, but still it packed a musical punch as profound as any of the outlaw genre’s heavy hitters.

Stevie Wonder, too, reflected the change in Motown’s musical  temperament, spending the first half of the 1970s progressing from the sophisticated soul bubblegum of “Uptight,” “I Was Born To Love Her” and “My Cherie Amour,” to the scintillating electricity of “Higher Ground,” the urban sprawl of “Living In The City” and the sly jive of “Boogie On Reggae Woman.” In their own right, Wonder and Gaye had simply struck blows for their own musical individuality. Collectively, however, they confirmed a revolution which invigorated the new decade, even as it completely restructured Motown.

No longer would the company shy away from contemporary issues (“message songs,” as the label somewhat patronizingly referred to anything which didn’t deal with traditional subjects), or pass them on to the less-established likes of Edwin Starr and the Undisputed Truth. No more would controversy and contention be relegated to the more obscure  Motown label subsidiaries. And no longer would there be such a thing as a single “Motown” sound. 

From the exuberant bubblegum of the young Jackson 5 to the gutbucket insistence of The Commodores’ “Machine Gun,” and from the synthesizer assault which Wonder borrowed from the rock group Tonto’s Expanding Headband to the sinewy seduction of Diana Ross’ “Love Hangover,” a whole new musical experience erupted into view. And though Motown purists and nostalgics bemoan the loss of that early, indefinable, Motown “magic,” if the history of funk were rewritten without the repercussions of Motown’s radical denouement, it would be a shorter and far sadder saga.

The popular image of Motown throughout the 1960s was of a massive pop conveyor belt, churning out a steady stream of dynamically arranged, effortlessly performed, honking, bopping dance-pop classics, and each one only as unique as the performers who were lined up to record them.

Occasionally something emerged to shatter the image. Marvin Gaye’s moody “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” The Supremes’ phase-drenched “The Happening” and socially volatile “Love Child” all shocked with their shaking of the Motown “formula.” So, earlier in the decade, did the chain of hard-riding, sax-driven instrumentals by Junior Walker & The All-Stars, which nodded toward both James Brown and the Memphis-based Stax label (at that time Motown’s greatest rival in the R&B market). Indeed, February 1965’s “Shotgun” not only out-vamped the master Brown, it out-gunned him as well — “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” was still six months away when “Shotgun” commenced its rocket ride to the top of the charts.

Yet “Shotgun” did not appear on any one of the labels best associated with Hitsville at that time — the Motown, Gordy and Tamla imprints which carried the unmistakable imprimatur of The Temptations, The Miracles, Martha Reeves or the Four Tops. Rather, it was farmed away to Soul, a barely tested subsidiary which Gordy purposely reserved for hardcore R&B releases unsuitable for the parent companies (as an interesting aside, Gordy actually copyrighted the word “Soul,” some time before it became common parlance for secular black music).

“Shotgun”’s success, then, not only took the Motown hierarchy by surprise, it also flew in the face of everything they believed about their market — three years later, Stevie Wonder had a similarly disrupting effect when he took a version of Bob Dylan’s “Blowing In The Wind” to the top of the R&B chart, solidifying his belief, as author Nelson George put it, “ … that black musical tastes weren’t as narrow as most record companies, including Motown, often thought they were.”

“Blowing In The Wind,” of course, also damned another Motown convention. Since the beginning, hit songs had largely been kept within the family (the label’s own Jobete music publishing house), a tradition which, in turn, ensured that a “good” Motown song might pass through half a dozen performers’ hands before it was finally consigned to the past, and the only difference between any version might be the tempo at which the musicians played it. Or it might not, because even they were generally the same.

Convened over a period of months (and countless sessions), the house band at Motown played an inestimable role in shaping the label’s musical identity. Like the MG’s at Stax, the group was drawn from the cream of locally available musicians; unlike the MG’s, or any other studio group of the age, The Funk Brothers enjoyed a success which crossed every conceivable boundary and border. R&B chart-toppers were a regular occurrence; pop smashes rolled out with production line precision. Not only were The Funk Brothers unstoppable, they seemed infallible as well.

Unnamed at the time, The Funk Brothers were integral to label founder Berry Gordy’s dream from the outset. The first-ever release on his Tamla label, 1959’s “Come To Me,” featured ex-Jackie Wilson bassist James Jamerson and drummer Benny Benjamin, alongside Thomas Bowles (saxaphone), Eddie Willis (guitar) and Joe Messina (guitar).

Over the next five years, other musicians moved in and out of the orbit as individual producers, circumstances and availability demanded. By 1964, however, the group had settled down to a solid core of Jamerson, Benjamin and former Aretha Franklin/Lloyd Price pianist Earl Van Dyke, with guitarist Robert White completing the core quartet. 

Aside from a handful of European tours, The Funk Brothers rarely strayed far from Detroit — indeed, the very nature of the Motown operation insisted that they be on call at all hours (a separate road band accompanied Motown artists when they toured), to put in anything up to 12 hours a day in the Snakepit (as they called the tiny Motown Studio A). Neither were the musicians allowed any more creative freedom than individual producers (and the omnipresent Gordy) deemed appropriate to whichever song they were recording at the time.

The atmosphere was stifling. On the one occasion that the Brothers were permitted to record their own album, Motown not only picked the tracks (instrumental versions of label hits) and the arrangements (there was to be no deviation from the songs’ original melody lines), the label even selected a new name for the group, Earl Van Dyke & The Soul Brothers. Gordy believed that the word “funk” had no place around such an operation as his.

The Brothers’ only opportunity to relax, then, came afterhours, when the quartet headed down to the Chit Chat Club to jam the riffs and ideas which would be brought back to the studio for infusion into the next Motown classic. Until the club was destroyed during the Detroit riots of June, 1967, “ … many of the grooves that made it to vinyl over at Hitsville actually had their origins in the Chit Chat jam sessions,” Van Dyke told journalist Allan Slutsky.

The end of the Chit Chat also marked the end of this particular incarnation of the Funk Brothers. After years of increasing substance abuse, Benjamin was now so unreliable that even his once instinctive time-keeping had fallen apart. Increasingly, Uriel Jones replaced him on sessions. Bob Babbitt now vied with Jamerson for the title of Motown’s supreme bassist. And Dennis Coffey and Melvin “Wah Wah Watson” Ragin had moved into the front rank of guitarists. And with the new faces came, of course, new ideas, personified by staff producer Norman Whitfield.

Stay tuned for Part 2!

Leave a Reply